Writing about Jesus and the law1 is a little like trying to solve an algebra problem when all that is known is that, perhaps, X has some sort of relationship to Y. As should be clear from the preceding selections, we have trouble knowing exactly what we mean when we talk about “Jesus”; furthermore, it is very difficult to know what the law was to which Jesus stood in some relationship. For this reason, as one reads the literature, one can choose at will from conclusions that Jesus was a revolutionary eschatological figure, an antinomian messianic figure, a pietist, a Pharisee, a Sadducee, a Dead Sea covenanter, a Hillelite, a Shammaite, a proto-rabbi, and a forerunner of “Liberal Judaism.” Nevertheless, despite these difficulties, we persist in trying to understand Jesus' attitude toward the law, for the law was a matter of great acrimony and dispute for the early church. Christians disagreed on whether the whole Israelite law should be considered in force; whether only circumcision should be abrogated (as necessary for the conversion of the gentiles); whether dietary and Sabbath laws should be considered of the past; whether there should be a distinction between Jewish Christian and gentile Christian so that only the born Jews should observe the law; whether all should abandon the law.2 The disputes were quite bitter, and ultimately resulted in any observance of the Hebrew law being considered heretical for Christians. In our modern era, which seeks authenticity in the earliest “pristine” time of Christianity, it seems imperative to understand what Jesus may have taught, or what he may have been understood to have taught, before the church fathers, before Paul, and before the Hellenization of the church.
Focusing on Jesus and the law almost seems to do violence to our general impression of Jesus, for law does not appear to have been at the center of Jesus' activity. Although Jesus preached in the synagogues,